If you were to peep Sasha Sloan’s Only Child inspiration playlist, you’d find songs by everyone from Robyn, Jewel, and Regina Spektor to The Killers, P!nk, and One Direction. Such eclectic taste freed the prolific pop writer, known for cuts with Katy Perry, Maggie Lindemann, and Camilla Cabello, from her usual expressive avenues, breaking the shackles of fear that had unsuspectingly tightened around her.
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“When I do listen to a Regina Spektor record, every song is different from the others, but the constant is her vocals and who she is as an artist,” she says, noting the playlist also includes Coldplay, Eva Cassidy, and Macy Gray. “I decided to make that the [album’s] theme, instead of it all sounding similar.”
Over a phone call earlier this week, the songwriter (born Alexandra Artourovna Yatchenko) spoke candidly about her process for the record, opting to exchange typical color palettes and textures for the surprising. “I’m not really the type who will listen to a song and be like, ‘OK, let’s create something that sounds like this.’ I never have any success with that,” she tells American Songwriter. But she does often cling to particular songs like her life depends on it.
During the creation of Only Child, her long-awaited debut, out October 16, she became obsessed with “Between Me and You,” a track off Brandon Flowers’ 2015 record, The Desired Effect. “He’s such a master with structure. He writes pop songs, but they’re not your normal pop songs.”
Sasha Sloan dug her claws into the record, tentatively called Who’s Cutting Onions? at one point, a moniker abruptly vetoed by her team, in November last year. She pulled out a whiteboard and began jotting down her favorite songs, compiling somewhere between 40 and 50 for the record. The title cut, co-written with King Henry (Charli XCX, Sofia Carson) and Shane McAnally (Sam Hunt, Kacey Musgraves), gnawed at her brain for the longest time. The title, scrawled in her iPhone’s notes app, would not leave her be. “I just didn’t know what the angle was,” she says.
McAnally, who has “really taken me under his wing,” she remarks, tossed out the hook (“It gets lonely being an only child”), and it all fell down like confetti. “Being an only child, I kind of grew up like a selfish asshole,” she laughs. “A lot of my cynicism comes from it. I grew up hanging out with adults basically, so I grew up really fast. This song emulates who I am.”
“Only Child” became the album’s centerpiece, one of great sorrow, cynicism, and dark humor. An imposing, emotionally-relentless 10 songs see her being the most vulnerable, raw, and brutally honest she’s ever been. It took some time, but once she shed her fear to be herself, the songs sprung from her fingertips. “I wasn’t scared to fully be myself and be genre-less in that sense. With my previous EPs, I would unintentionally box myself in,” she says. “My taste was different than what I was used to writing, and I let my taste lead the way on this album.”
Growing up on Americana music and becoming one of pop music’s most incisive writers, as well as studying a year of jazz at Berkeley College of Music, her wealth of experiences serve her well with what could very well be one of the year’s most special. Of course, this process didn’t come without its own set of burdens. “The word ‘album’ is daunting, even though it’s not much longer than an EP. Albums are what make artists iconic. I was putting pressure on myself for no reason. Everything gives me anxiety, but once I’m in the middle of the process, it always ends up figuring itself out. The process was way more fluid than I thought it was going to be.”
Her anxiety, however, hasn’t taken a day off, especially through a very grueling 2020. She’s had to navigate not only the sociopolitical awakening and a pandemic but the ongoing suffocation of mental health. “To be quite honest, right now, I’m definitely going through it a bit. Anxiety and depression can cycle in with each other. At the beginning of this, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad.’ It’s been really hard to get excited about releasing an album in the current state of the world. There’s so much uncertainty and unrest. It’s nice to know I’m not alone, and hopefully, by releasing music, I’m helping other people’s anxiety. It’s giving me anxiety, though.”
Appropriately, her new song “Is It Just Me?” seems to capture our collective anxiety in a way few other songs have been able to manage. “I hate holding babies / And people tryna save me / Think religion is a business / Where you pay for God’s forgiveness,” she sings with a relaxed iciness. “Modern art is boring / Politicians are annoying / I don’t think love lasts forever / And old music was better.”
Written with King Henry and Nicolle Galyon (Kelsea Ballerini, Camila Cabello) over Zoom, the song sprouted from her obsession with the sub-Reddit “Unpopular Opinion,” which was actually the song’s working title. “I feel like I do have a lot of unpopular opinions, but I’m too scared to voice them,” she acknowledges with a chuckle. “I’m not alone in this, but I think a little differently. I don’t buy into bullshit, and I don’t really have the dream of getting married and having babies. And I’m not religious. I don’t really know what I believe in or know who I am or want to be.”
Sasha Sloan’s always one to push the envelope, lyrically hammering heavier than most of her contemporaries, and “Is It Just Me?” is the next level. “Weddings are outdated / The show ‘Friends’ was overrated / I think rich kids have it easy / And PDA is creepy,” she leans into the throbbing, gummy backbeat. “The Internet’s obnoxious / People my age make me nauseous / I think marijuana’s classy / And doing coke is trashy.”
In expressing such unpopular opinions, she made sure to pull the reins back when she needed to. “This song was really challenging not to take it too far. We definitely had moments when we came up with lyrics and had to go, ‘Oh, we can’t put that in there.’”
Only Child trails three solo EPs, most recently 2019’s Self Portrait, and while her singular songwriting voice remains unwavering, it’s clear she’s diving much deeper in her creative well and going places even her fans won’t anticipate. “I really learned how to say no and also trust my own opinion on something,” she says. As such, she even passed on several songs her manager adored, a decision that proved crucial to her growth. She now stands fully in the spotlight, firmly declaring her worth with an impressively stacked deck of songs. “Standing up was something I had never really done before. It felt really good trusting my own gut for the first time.”
Much of Only Child runs moody and somber, a hard pivot from much of what she’s been consuming through the pandemic. “I was reading an article about how when things are bad, people lean into more light-hearted content. That’s what I’ve been doing, personally. Like ‘WAP’ is kind of my favorite song right now,” she offers. “I’ve also been watching a lot of ‘90-Day Fiance’ and ‘The Office’ reruns. The lighter the better for me right now.”
“Except, I just started ‘Succession,’ which has been sick. I’ve also been consuming a lot of nostalgic music, the music I listened to as a kid. It has that weird, comforting feeling. It’s like a familiar scent, and it’s nice to have in the background. I’ve been listening to electronic music that doesn’t have lyrics, too. It’s been what I play around the house now. Anything that doesn’t have lyrics is way easier for me to digest.”
It seems apt then that she landed a cut on Katy Perry’s glistening new record, Smile. A co-writer on “Cry About It Later,” alongside Noonie Bao, Oscar Holter, and Perry, Sloan was living her middle school dreams. “Katy is one of the most iconic artists of all time. ‘I Kissed a Girl’ came out when my mom was still driving me around in middle school,” she recalls. “I remember hearing it in the backseat and being horrified that my mom was in the car.”
Sasha Sloan’s entire career culminates in this moment. Only Child strikes as a songwriter fully blossoming into her own. From the devastating “Until It Happens to You” and “Santa’s Real,” a sparkling wonderland full of yearning for a world without pain, to acoustic thumper “Someone You Hate,” detailing a relationship’s burning out, she sculpts a magnificent debut.
And she’s more than earned it.
“You know they say you have to put 10,000 hours into something before you get good at it? For me, it was like 30,000,” she quips. Early in her career, she broke songwriting rules before totally understanding them, and through the years, it has been collaboration that’s influenced her style the most. “When I first started songwriting, I was doing it all on my own. That comes with a lot of stress. If you write alone, a lot of it ended up sounding the same for me.”
Once she crossed the threshold, her world opened up in unexpected ways. “You’re going to meet a lot of different people and everyone’s going to have different views on songwriting,” she says. “I’ve discovered so many things about different cultures and experiences I never would have if I wasn’t a songwriter. Finding the people who aren’t the right fit helps you find the people who are. That helps you grow as a songwriter.”
Photo by Susanne Kindt